I just returned from an extraordinary meeting of 900 academics, civil society leaders, business people and other innovative thinkers, held by the World Economic Forum in Dubai. Called the Global Agenda Summit, 80 Councils composed of a dozen members each, discussed how to redesign our systems for global cooperation for the 21st century.
Klaus Schwab, the founder of the Forum, was unable to attend due to a last minute illness, but in an interview shared his thoughts. "Our existing global institutions require extensive rewiring, and a fundamental shift in values and political culture is vital if we are to foster the global cooperation necessary to confront contemporary challenges in an effective, inclusive and sustainable way." To address this historic challenge Professor Schwab and the Forum have launched an unprecedented global multi-stakeholder and multimedia dialogue to develop a 21st century vision of global cooperation.
This initiative is an important one. The world is organized around nation states based on national economies and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The idea of national sovereignty was initiated hundreds of years ago with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 and persists today. After the second world was there were many bold initiatives to create better systems of global cooperation, including Breton Woods, The United Nations, The General Agreement of Trades and Tariffs (GATT), The Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later the World Trade Organization and now the G8 and G20.
But, as evidenced by the impending failure of the December UN Climate change Conference in Copenhagen, these structures are becoming increasing inept at fixing what ails the world.
However today there are strong regional economies like Europe and the financial crisis and global recession of 2009-10 has awakened many government leaders to a new compelling fact. We now have a truly global economy, and as the expression says: "everything is connected to everything else." But our international systems for cooperation are failing in achieving world goals of economic growth, climate protection, poverty eradication, conflict avoidance, human security and promotion of shared values.
An initial report from the Forum's "Global Redesign Initiative" process explains why existing instruments of global governance - principally multilateral institutions - have been so weak in mustering an effective response to the economic crisis. It notes that today there is a power shift from North to South, from West to East. It is also a young world, with a majority of the population below the age of 25.
"The major shifts in relative economic weight among countries that have occurred in recent decades have naturally led emerging players to seek a more consequential role in decision-making than is reflected in the governance of institutions organized for the most part following WWII. Countries with a vested interest in the current structures have often been reluctant to agree to changes that would dilute their influence."
The report notes how the digital world has brought about integration as well. "Decades of economic development, integration of product and service markets, cross-border travel and new technologies enabling virtual interaction have created a world that is much more complex and bottom-up than top-down." The result is that the world has become not only more economically, politically and environmentally interdependent. "People around the globe increasingly perceive their interdependence and seek ways to express it outside of formal national political structures." The upshot is that the world's citizens "have become more aware that global problems require global trusteeship and that efforts to solve problems solely through traditional negotiating processes, characterized by the defense of national interests, are inadequate in the face of critical global challenges."
At the Dubai summit many innovative proposals came forward. I personally found it very exhilarating. One group of law experts argued that we need to completely redesign the global legal system - the set of rules that enables the world to function. Another argued for a new global system to measure success, based on a universal graphic language and visualization tools. Another argued for a global vaccine protocol and another still for a global intellectual property system and another presented a plan on how a global risk management system could be build.
However, just about everyone agreed that what we don't need is some kind of global government or a new set of international bureaucracies piled on the existing ones.
This view is very different from other approaches that have sought to strengthen existing institutions of global governance like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund. "Such would just create ever bigger more unmanageable bureaucracies," says Professor Schwab. Rather, the Initiative is taking a Wikinomics approach -- embracing more agile, networked structures enabled by global networks for new kinds of collaboration. Here, nation states continue to play a central role but can overcome their silo thinking and behavior by sharing information better, cooperate real-time on networks and "anchoring the preparation and implementation of their decisions more deeply in the processes of interaction with interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder networks of relevant experts and actors."
But how would this new, networked system of global cooperation work? There are many tough issues. How would these vast multi-stakeholder networks achieve legitimacy? How could they be held accountable? How would they interact with existing structures? How would participation be achieved? What should existing governments and other institutions do to embrace global networked cooperation and problem solving?
In fact stronger global governance could create a new problem. As we attempt to achieve new models of global cooperation, citizens of the world could become one or more steps removed from their governments and relegated to passive consumers. Further, the capability of the world and its citizens will not be brought to bear on solving the world's problems. If this is not fixed there can be no legitimate, accountable and trusted global cooperation, problem solving and governance.
To address this challenge one Council in which I participated (on the Future of Governments) put forward a proposal called The Global Citizen Engagement Initiative. They argued that governments, in collaboration with other stakeholders, need to launch a new paradigm to involve the citizens of the world to co-innovate the 21st century and transformation society through mass collaboration. This is enabled by a new medium of communications; appropriate for a new generation of young people who have shown that they want to be engaged in the world; and necessary for the demands of the global economy and society.
These include ideation tools like digital brainstorms and town hall meetings: decision-making initiatives like citizen juries and deliberative polling; execution tools like policy wikis and social networks within government; and evaluation programs through mass collaboration monitoring systems to enable citizens to keep governments accountable and evaluate government performance.
The goal is not to replace existing institutions. This proposal will help them. It is not supplanting representative governance it enhances it. But additionally it enables existing institutions to unleash public value, catalyzing initiatives and unleashing human capital in the world. However leaders of current institutions will need to change their whole operating model to interact with their citizens.
This was one of literally hundred of innovative ideas that came forward. For sure this process is one to be watched carefully and the Forum in inviting thoughts from anyone. Next check point will be the Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos at the end of January. To me the stakes are very high.
Don Tapscott is the author or co-author of 13 books on new technology in society, most recently "Grown Up Digital" and "Wikinomics." He is Chairman of the think tank nGenera Insight and an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. His upcoming book (Spring 2010) is co-authored with Anthony D. Williams and is entitled "Rebuilding the World."